Everyone knows the myth of the balding, white male professor, smoking a pipe, wearing a tweed coat with elbow patches, tucked away in his office in an Ivory Tower, ignoring grading papers in favor of writing his own textbook that will net him millions of dollars.
If you’ve been to a college campus in recent years, you know that stereotype just doesn’t fit these days. Professors are a more diverse bunch these days, in terms of gender, race, and even viewpoints. The office door is less likely to be locked, and while there are still assignments to grade (online and on paper), a professor has a better chance of winning the lottery than penning a book that makes millions for the author. Here is a list of other myths we have about the arena of academics, and some of the realities you’re more likely to encounter.
Yes, elbow patches on tweed coats were once a thing. Some claim it goes back to wear-and-tear on coats worn during research, and the need to protect the elbows. Others harken to hunting and guns. As for pipe-smokers, I knew a few profs who engaged in the practice when I was an undergraduate, but nowadays you are more likely to find smoking banned on your campus than a faculty member lighting up.
The liberal academic is a little more likely to be found than a pipe-smoker, but they aren’t as commonplace as conservative commentators would lead you to believe. Conservative academics are as likely to be happy in their work in academia. And those who are most likely to believe that professors are politically-biased are those who are the least familiar with what happens at a college or university.
“Are you busy?" is a frequent question I get from students after they knock on my door. I teach them that, in fact, I am always busy, but they are a priority. It is better to say “Can I interrupt what you are doing?" The answer is almost always yes, though I take the time to meet with these students; such meetings are paramount.
The belief that professors don’t work many hours comes from our schedules, which can show us teaching two or three classes a day, a far cry from my wife’s schedule of five classes that she teaches in middle school. But our day isn’t spent solely lecturing in the classroom. There are class preparations, committee work, annual reports, departmental reports, schedule planning, research, office hours and appointments, and that’s just the routine.
A late colleague, a judge, once taught a class after teasing me for “how little I do." After teaching that class, he was quick to change his mind, realizing exactly how much work we do. “I had no idea," he admitted. “I finally see why you are so busy." And if you don’t believe these anecdotes, here's your confirmation.
I have critics who email me, insisting I make more than $200,000 a year, because they “read that somewhere online." It’s definitely not true among adjunct professors, and not all tenured professors make even half of that. Those who live in expensive cities make more, but don’t keep more. A friend from graduate school got a job in California, and makes more than me. He also makes his home in another professor’s basement, because housing is pretty expensive.
“Between 1990 and 2000, college tuition and fees at public four-year colleges (the kind that educate the majority of undergraduates) increased 48 percent, adjusted for inflation," writes The Century Foundation. “Faculty compensation (including salary and benefits), meanwhile, increased just 4 percent. Both grew more quickly between 2001 and 2011, but faculty compensation increases (6 percent) were still only a fraction of overall tuition growth (73 percent). The trend at public two-year community colleges has been similar."
A colleague of mine writes and publishes books all the time, but he’s no richer than any of us. In fact, friends tease him about how much money he makes in royalties, or (more accurately) how little he makes from them. Books are skyrocketing in price, but not all of that trickles down to the writer. In fact, many professors write their books “open source," when students can’t afford to buy the text.
I have frequent battles with our fellow faculty over Saturday exams. I also often lose these battles and have to show up for these. Our college gives us more flexibility on what we teach and when than most colleges, but it’s always politics, even for those who don’t teach political science. If you don’t explain that to students, they’ll hate you for scheduling that early morning class, or their late afternoon offering during practice hours. Scheduling is part art, part science, designed to cover as many student needs as humanly possible.
If you thought those who wield a Ph.D. have little power over class times and meeting places and days, then hear this: they have less control over how much a course hour costs. Nor are professors the reason costs are going up. “Your first thought about tuition and fees must be that it must cost quite a lot to employ so many faculty members," according to schoolmoney.org. “Surprisingly, this isn’t really the case. Although instruction makes up the largest percentage of college expenses, it only makes up 27% of college costs and public universities, according to Radio Open Source."
We wish it were lower, but know that the school has operating costs. If you (the professor) want to help, take a more active role in the students’ quest for a good job.
I think this myth of professors avoiding office hours came from Dr. Indiana Jones in the movies, sneaking out of his office via the window to avoid the crowd of students wanting to confront him about their late paper grades. In reality, professors do want you to come to office hours, preferably after making an appointment. They would rather you the student ask for help before you are too far behind to reasonable catch-up in class.
No, you don’t have complete academic freedom as a professor. You can’t write whatever you want or say whatever you want in a public forum. You do get some freedom but it comes with responsibilities. It’s the same rules whether you work for a business, serve the government, or are self-employed. Don’t say or do something stupid. Everyone’s got a story about some professor who got away with some shenanigans years ago, but that’s a different era. That was before the Internet, social media, and the rest of the new communications world. As a former administrator at our college once said: “What part of 'world wide web' do you not understand?"
Having tenure is better than no tenure, but it doesn’t make you Superman. At our college, tenure means you get a hearing and due process before you get fired. Some anti-academic blogs will tell you that professors can kill people and still be tenured. Those same sites will also tell you about a professor who once had tenure and killed someone. None of them are still employed by their college, I bet.
Others will tell you how rarely a professor gets fired. But that’s because most resign before they can be fired, which skews the numbers a bit. The moral of the story is that as a professor, you should conduct yourself professionally. As a student, you should expect it too.
There’s the stereotype of the bitter aged professor, who hates students, grading, is ignored by everyone, and is only hanging on for Lord knows why. But the reality is that most professors really like their jobs, as a TIAA survey reveals. They enjoy mentoring students, teaching their subject matter, conducting research, and even the camaraderie of their colleagues on faculty committees…most times.
As I noted before, professors tend to like their jobs, on average. And the best part about the work is the students you work with. (Sometimes.) Even for the ones who won’t go through a brick wall to learn from you, they just present a special challenge for professors. You get the best satisfaction seeing them go on to succeed in the business world, as entrepreneurs, in post-graduate studies.
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John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at email@example.com. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.